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Equipment Maintenance 101

BY ALAN OLDHAM
PHOTOS BY LISA WORTHY, COURTESY CONCEPT2, and NK
VIDEO BY ADAM REIST

Proper care for equipment is a concept most rowers set aside once they learn the basics as novices. From ergometers and electronics to oars and shells, it turns out that the best care for your rowing equipment—and, ultimately, your performance—is about much more than avoiding bumps and scuffs.

To learn more, I reached out to some industry experts to bust top maintenance myths and share tips and tricks.

Ergometers

Whether you erg at home or log your meters on a machine at your local club or gym, taking proper care of this essential training tool will make your workout more enjoyable. You might also see a positive effect on your splits, too.

The range of makes and models of quality rowing machines is on the rise. Knowing how to care for your particular machine is important and starts with a visit to the manufacturer’s website. For this article, I reached out to Concept2 to learn more about what care they suggest.

Maintenance Myths

You’re not alone if you’ve ever felt guilty about leaving the erg handle in the handle hook. It’s a best practice drilled into rowers from day one and the mere thought of an over-stretched erg shock cord (bungee) can lead even the most laid-back coach to launch into a lecture.

Well, you can finally breathe easy: leaving the handle in the hook between erg sessions or even longer will not harm the bungee, according to Concept2’s Meredith Breiland.

“Some boathouses instruct users to avoid using the handle hook for storage,” she told me. “Many have even removed the handle hooks altogether. The handle hook can—and should—be used for storage; it won’t stretch the shock cord.” In fact, Breiland explained, “the handle hook is very helpful because it puts the handle closer to the athlete for easy access.” 

“Do not let go of the handle,” she also warned. “The handle should be carefully returned to the handle hook or placed against the chain guard. We recommend making this a habit so that oxygen-deprived athletes don’t make careless movements. A flying handle can hit and damage the performance monitor.”

Breiland also took on the misconception that it’s OK to stand up fully-assembled ergs. “One of the most overlooked warnings from Concept2 is: Do not store your indoor rowers on end assembled in one piece,” she told me. Beyond the unlikely yet real risk of the erg falling and hitting a rower, she continued, “it also puts stress on parts of the [machine] that can cause frame damage. Please separate the two parts for storage. It is a quick and easy process and requires no tools.”

Everyday Care

While it is tempting to grab any old rag and give the machine a token wipe, you really should use something more. Sweat, while not as salty as seawater, can have a corrosive effect on ergometer parts.

Concept2’s website suggests diluting a quarter cup of standard household bleach in a gallon of water, but this solution should never be used on the monorail and never be sprayed directly onto the monitor. So a cloth dampened with glass cleaner or soapy water may be a good alternative. “The performance monitor should be treated as a computer,” explained Breiland. “Keep it safe from cleaning sprays and the elements, such as extreme heat or cold.”

Just like a car, long-time use requires servicing at regular intervals; if you’re having to tune out an annoying rattling noise, it’s probably past due for a tune-up.

Just like a car, long-time use requires servicing at regular intervals; if you’re having to tune out an annoying rattling noise, it’s probably past due for a tune-up.

Both Concept2 and RowPerfect recommend servicing your machine every 50 and 200-250 hours of use. That’s about weekly and monthly in a club or school setting. For any rowers out there eager to pull their erg out of retirement from a damp garage or dusty basement, it would be a good idea to give it a good tune-up before your first session.

The 50-hour appointment calls for a simple application of lubricating chain oil. A teaspoon of purified mineral oil, 3-In-One Oil, or 20W motor oil are all good options. WD-40 is not.

With every 200-250 hours of use, check the chain for stiff links, the chain-handle connection for wear, the shock cord for correct tension, screws for tightness, and inside the flywheel for any dust. Lastly, be sure to keep the monitor software up to date with the latest version. When it comes to replacing worn out parts, most ergometer manufacturers have parts available to buy online. So check out the appropriate website for more information.

Don’t Forget About: Speed-devouring Dust Bunnies

Believe it or not, the dust inside the erg flywheel can actually build up enough to change the drag factor you experience at any given vent setting. So unless you want to work harder than intended, it’s best to stop those dust bunnies from multiplying before they can slow your splits.

Electronics

In the rapidly-advancing field of rowing electronics, Nielsen-Kellerman (NK) is the main player, producing ubiquitous devices like the CoxBox and SpeedCoach. Joe Racosky, NK’s sustaining product manager, shared his thoughts on caring for these key items.

Maintenance Myths

When it comes to battery life, it is almost second nature to give electronic devices a full charge before setting them aside for the next use. This may be well and good in a busy season with a daily battery run-down. But when it comes to longer periods between use, it turns out that what’s best is “to store it with approximately 40-60 percent charge and recharge the battery back to 40-60 percent every three months [for the CoxBox] and every two months [for the SpeedCoach].”

In fact, leaving any device plugged in for extended lengths of times “can hurt the overall battery life,” he said.

The strange but powerful belief that simply plugging in a device to charge it up will mysteriously cure it of all ills is sadly another myth. Plugging in a damaged device can actually cause more harm than good, especially when water is involved. As many in-boat electronics are waterproof by design, water entry indicates a problem best solved by the experts. 

Everyday Care

The future may be wireless, but wires are still a fact of life when it comes to many in-boat electronics such as the CoxBox speaker system. “Frequently check the wiring for any nicks or openings in the wiring sleeves,” Racosky suggested to ensure good operation. “Do not use if the wiring is damaged. The best way to check on what is not working is by swapping ‘known good’ equipment throughout the audio system until the problem item is found,” he continued.

Unfortunately, “issues found with the harness, microphones, or speakers typically cannot be fixed and just need to be replaced,” said Racosky. Most issues with the CoxBox control unit, on the other hand, can be fixed, but the broken device has to be sent in for repair.

As for troubleshooting SpeedCoach issues, Racosky pointed out that most issues can be resolved with a quick review of the online resources available on the website. Some of the common problems like satellite or Bluetooth connectivity issues can usually be fixed with a simple reset by clicking through to the device’s diagnostic screen.

Don’t Forget About: Buoyancy

While an increasing number of rowing-specific electronics from NK and other companies like Active-Tools are designed to float if they fall into the water, many rowers, coaches, and coxswains have learned the hard way that some devices sink right to the bottom. Knowing what floats and what doesn’t is a must.

Units such as the latest rubber-clad CoxBoxes do float, but older metal-cased editions do not. Other smaller units packed with dense circuitry, like the SpeedCoach, also do not float, which makes that neon foam floatie on the lanyard more than just a fashion statement. The website for whatever company produced your electronics is always the best place to start looking for advice or help. 

Oars

There is a dizzying array of types of oars on the market. Fortunately some universal principles apply for caring for your or your club’s set of sculls or sweeps, regardless of who made them. Kate Smith, rowing business coordinator at Concept2, offered some insights into what that care can look like.

Maintenance Myths

Go to any college crew practice and you’re bound to see partial-boat rowing, where half the boat sits easy while the other half does all the work. This is often a technical drill that can be—and often is—done at full power. Coaches may have some idea that this is not great for the oars, but they continue with partial-boat rowing nonetheless.

It turns out that this is actually not a myth at all: it’s a fact.

“The equipment is designed to withstand the forces generated under racing conditions. During practices, it is not advisable to row at full power if everyone in the boat is not rowing. This may load the oars beyond their design strength.”

Everyday Care

“Good technique and oar handling are important to keep your equipment in good shape,” said Smith. “Keep your hands on the oars at all times and avoid obstacles and debris in the water.”

When not in use, “oars are fairly resilient in terms of withstanding the elements,” she continued. But “we recommend that you do not store your oars long-term in continuous sunlight. Ultraviolet light will eventually degrade the surface and shorten the life of the oar.”

When it comes to loading oars on a trailer or car for transportation, “most commercial car top racks, such as Yakima or Thule, are adequately coated to protect the oar shaft,” said Smith. “However, unprotected tubular metal racks can cause serious damage to an oar shaft that is tied on without any padding.” As a fix, she suggests putting something soft that won’t compress too much between the oar and the rack, or using a hard case.

“Good technique and oar handling are important to keep your equipment in good shape,” said Smith. “Keep your hands on the oars at all times and avoid obstacles and debris in the water.”

“Accidents do happen,” acknowledged Smith. “Some of those accidents may damage your oars. Some kinds of damage can be easily repaired at home; other damage may require shipping your oars back to Concept2.”

Although there is always the temptation to keep rowing, stopping to assess potential damage is important, explained Smith. “Inspect your oars carefully after any mishap where the oar may have met excessive stress, load, or impact. These mishaps may include catching a bad crab (particularly if the shaft impacts the rigger), hitting a bridge abutment, finding a big log, or being improperly padded in transportation.” It is important to catch damage as soon as possible, said Smith. “It can be dangerous to row with a damaged oar.”

Don’t Forget About: Asking for help

Although it is common enough to see a lone coach carrying an entire eight’s worth of oars to the water for a race, if you have a big load of oars to carry, it is always a good idea to ask for help. Overloading yourself with too many oars puts them at greater risk of damage from bumping each other, or an innocent bystander, as well as falling when being put down.

Shells

No matter your preferred brand of boat, a shell is the most valuable piece of equipment you or your club can own. Hudson Boat Works research associate Dan Bechard shared some maintenance tips for rowers and coaches that can apply to almost any make of shell.

Maintenance Myths

Making sure rigger bolts are tight is one of the most important steps in regatta day preparation. Yet with every “final check for tightness,” even the most well-meaning coach may be doing more harm than good.

“We like to call it PCD (Paranoid Coaches Disorder),” Bechard told me. “The need to give every nut one last quarter turn. The issue here is that the likely result is too much torsional load on the bolt, which can cause the top of the bolt to break.”

“This is particularly problematic with the top nut,” he continued. “Afterwards, the stem of the nut would need to be dug out of the pin. This can cause a lot of anxiety if it happens just prior to a race. The bolt only needs to be tightened enough to collapse the lock washer. The lock washer’s job is to place tension on the assembly with its spring-like characteristic. In short, it only needs to be snug to do its job.”

Everyday Care

“When we think about damage we typically think of the more catastrophic events,” said Bechard. “The audible crunch that sends chills down any coach’s spine. However, it’s the daily use that has the largest impact on equipment lifespan.”

“Over the course of one summer, a well-used shell could endure 500,000 loading cycles or more,” he continued. “It’s a lot of wear and tear on any component.”

A boat constructed for durability alone might last longer, but it would almost certainly not win any races.

“Interacting surfaces are typically made to be durable while maintaining considerations for weight and manufacturability,” said Bechard. “For instance, hulls are made primarily out of carbon, which is superior in performance compared to its predecessors in many areas. This concept can be seen in many of your boats’ components as well.” 

All the wear and tear adds up and should be addressed regularly. Replacing worn parts and keeping the shell in top shape also encourages rowers to engage more in the care of the equipment, said Bechard. “As areas become worn or damaged, it is more likely that athletes will not take care of the shell to the same degree, thereby accelerating the degradation of the shell.”

For Bechard, the answer is creating a “culture of clean.” After every row, he says, wipe down the boat and oars with a clean towel. “Spend extra time on the contacting surfaces—the slides, sleeves, and cockpit. Spray with fresh water if you row in brackish or saltwater and be thorough. After every week of training, clean your boat with non-abrasive soap and water,” he added.

Applying wax to improve hull speed is yet another myth Bechard busts. “Polishes and compounds are believed to create boat speed,” he said. “The key thing in rowing is to keep a clean and smooth surface. Just soap, water, and diligence will do the job here. Most other compounds and polishes are shown to slow you down. There are some textures that reduce skin friction, but are not compliant with the rules of our sport.”

For water spotting, Bechard recommends a 1:5 or 1:10 solution of vinegar and water.

“After every month, complete a component check,” Bechard said. “Every nut and washer has a purpose and together they keep components secure and wear to a minimum. If you’ve lost it, replace it. Loose hardware can cause erosion issues due to the thread of the bolt or screw rubbing up against the carbon or aluminum surface.”

Bechard said many problems are preventable with proper maintenance and checks. “The common issues that do happen are easily repairable given the proper steps and patience. The knowledge to know what is fixable in-house and what needs an additional level of expertise is key and can be gained by consultation with your manufacturer.”

Most boat builders off courses or clinics (online or in person), so regardless of the type of shell, support is rarely more than an internet search away. 

Don’t Forget About: Water Wear

Believe it or not, water is perhaps one of the most damaging substances your shell will encounter on a daily basis. It makes sense to wash down boats after a row on the ocean, but fresh water can also pose an unseen risk, according to Bechard. “The water we row on is not pure. It contains silt, sand, and other debris that can range in size and shape. These materials can act as abrasive material that strip materials if not properly maintained.”

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